How Much Are Obama’s Scandals Hurting Him?

Is Obama being hurt by the scandals that have engulfed his administration? That sounds like a silly question: of course the scandals have damaged his image, thrown his administration off message, weakened his ability to get anything through Congress. Haven’t they?

If you believe the Gallup Poll, the scandals might be a boon to Obama. Currently he sits at 51%/42%, as measured from May 15 through May 17. This represents an improvement. You can see the trend in this graph:

So the great mass of television watchers and supermarket magazine readers are not yet shocked by the depths of the administration’s depravity. To put it mildly.

Scott Rasmussen shows Obama taking a bit of a hit over the last week or so, with his approval/disapproval among likely voters at 49%/49%. (I assume Rasmussen has tweaked his definition of likely voter, now that the Democrats have shown they can turn out non-taxpayers just as though they had a legitimate interest in the proceedings.) Of interest, as always, is Rasmussen’s Presidential Approval Index, calculated by subtracting the number who strongly disapprove of the president’s performance from those who strongly approve. This chart shows Obama’s history with that index:

These data suggest that Obama may have been hurt somewhat by the scandals, but for the most part, the long-term pattern seems to be dominant. Since very early in his administration, a plurality of Americans have strongly disapproved of Obama’s job performance. For almost his term in office, 40% to 45% of likely voters have not just disapproved of Obama, but disapproved of him strongly. That has almost always exceeded, by a considerable margin, the number who strongly approve. But as the 2012 campaign wore on, the number of strong approvers began to rise. This was entirely foreseeable: it represented Democrats coming home to their party’s candidate in the midst of a hotly contested campaign. Those who were willing to tell pollsters that they were strong approvers never did come close to catching up, but it didn’t matter. The lukewarm approvers, loyal Democrats who realized, I suspect, that Obama is a lousy president, but still didn’t want to vote for a Republican, gave Obama his winning margin.

Once the election was past, Republicans, in their usual spirit of generosity, gave Obama a second honeymoon. You can see the sudden (but temporary) drop in strong disapproval immediately after November’s election. Since the election, as one might expect, everyone has been returning to form. The Republicans and independents who disagree with Obama about nearly everything are expressing ever stronger disapproval of his policies, while the Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents who never thought much of Obama, or who are underemployed as a result of his policies, have rapidly fallen away from the “strong approval” category. It seems obvious that before long, the Approval Index will be more or less where it has been for nearly all of Obama’s term in office. In that context, the current scandals certainly could hurt Obama, but at the moment they are being swamped by larger trends–trends, however, that they are likely to reinforce.

It may be futile to look for the effects of any scandal in the first few days or weeks. Certainly Watergate, to take one obvious example, did not hurt Nixon significantly until long after the fact. It is the drip-drip of headlines and revelations over the course of months that makes a scandal debilitating, not the initial revelations. More important, it is the long-term impact in how voters view an administration that matters. For example, Fast and Furious deserved to be a major scandal. But it didn’t resonate with most voters because it didn’t jibe with their image of Barack Obama, and it wasn’t enough, in itself, to change that image significantly. This is why multiple, reinforcing scandals can be so hurtful: they have a better chance of reorienting perceptions of an administration.

So the Benghazi/IRS/AP scandals haven’t had much effect, yet, on the standing of President Obama or his administration with voters. But their potential to do so is clear. A great deal depends on whether the national news media, normally stalwart supporters of the Democratic Party, keep the scandals in the news over the next few months. Right now, I would rate that prospect at even money, at best. Likely as not, news coverage of the scandals will be dominated by speculation about whether Republicans have “overreached,” an obsession that has never been manifested in connection with any Republican scandal.

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